Great Chinese Famine

Great Chinese Famine

History of the
People's Republic of China
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    1949–1976, The Mao Era
        Korean War
        Zhen Fan
        Three-anti/five-anti campaigns
        Hundred Flowers Campaign
        Anti-Rightist Movement
        Great Leap Forward
            Great Chinese Famine
        Cultural Revolution
            Lin Biao
            Gang of Four
            Tiananmen Incident
    1976–1989, Era of Reconstruction
        Economic reform
        Sino-Vietnamese War
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    1989–2002, A Rising Power
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        Sichuan Earthquake
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The Great Chinese Famine (simplified Chinese: 三年大饥荒; traditional Chinese: 三年大饑荒; pinyin: Sānnián dà jīhuāng), officially referred to as the Three Years of Natural Disasters (simplified Chinese: 三年自然灾害; traditional Chinese: 三年自然災害; pinyin: Sānnián zìrán zāihài) by the People's Republic of China, was the period in the People's Republic of China between 1958 and 1961 characterized by widespread famine. Drought, poor weather conditions, and the policies of the Communist Party of China contributed to the famine, although the relative weights of the contributions are disputed.

According to government statistics, there were 15 million excess deaths in this period.[citation needed] Unofficial estimates vary, but scholars have estimated the number of famine victims to be between 20 and 43 million.[1] Yang Jisheng, a former Xinhua News Agency reporter who spent over ten years gathering information available to no other scholars, estimates excess deaths of 36 million.[2] Historian Frank Dikötter, having been granted special access to Chinese archival materials, estimates that there were at least 45 million premature deaths from 1958 to 1962.[3][4]

The phrases "Three Years of Economic Difficulty" and "Three Bitter Years" are also used by Chinese officials to describe this period.



Until the early 1980s, the Chinese government's stance, reflected by the name "Three Years of Natural Disasters", was that the famine was largely a result of a series of natural disasters compounded by several planning errors. Researchers outside China, however, generally agree that massive institutional and policy changes which accompanied the Great Leap Forward were the key factors in the famine.[5] Since the 1980s there has been greater official Chinese recognition of the importance of policy mistakes in causing the disaster, claiming that the disaster was 30% due to natural causes and 70% by mismanagement.[citation needed]

During the Great Leap Forward, farming was organized into communes and the cultivation of private plots forbidden. Iron and steel production was identified as a key requirement for economic advancement. Millions of peasants were ordered away from agricultural work to join the iron and steel production workforce.

Yang Jisheng would summarize the effect of the focus on production targets in 2008:

In Xinyang, people starved at the doors of the grain warehouses. As they died, they shouted, "Communist Party, Chairman Mao, save us". If the granaries of Henan and Hebei had been opened, no one need have died. As people were dying in large numbers around them, officials did not think to save them. Their only concern was how to fulfill the delivery of grain.[6]

Along with collectivisation, the central Government decreed several changes in agricultural techniques based on the ideas of Ukrainian pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko.[7] One of these ideas was close planting, whereby the density of seedlings was at first tripled and then doubled again. The theory was that plants of the same species would not compete with each other. In practice they did, which stunted growth and resulted in lower yields. Another policy was based on the ideas of Lysenko's colleague Teventy Maltsev, who encouraged peasants across China to plow deeply into the soil (up to 1 or 2 meters). They believed the most fertile soil was deep in the earth, allowing extra strong root growth. However in shallow soil, useless rocks, soil, and sand were driven up instead, burying the topsoil.

These radical changes in farming organization coincided with adverse weather patterns including droughts and floods. In July 1959, the Yellow River flooded in East China. According to the Disaster Center,[8] it directly killed, either through starvation from crop failure or drowning, an estimated 2 million people, while other areas were affected in other ways as well. It could be ranked as one of the deadliest natural disasters of the 20th century.[9]

In 1960, an estimated 60% of agricultural land received no rain at all.[10] The Encyclopædia Britannica yearbooks from 1958 to 1962 also reported abnormal weather, followed by droughts and floods. This included 30 inches (760 mm) of rain in Hong Kong across five days in June 1959, part of a pattern that hit all of Southern China.

As a result of these factors, year over year grain production in China dropped by 15% in 1959. By 1960, it was at 70% of its 1958 level. There was no recovery until 1962, after the Great Leap Forward ended.[11]

According to the work of Nobel prize winning economist and expert on famines Amartya Sen, most famines do not result just from lower food production, but also from an inappropriate or inefficient distribution of the food, often compounded by lack of information and indeed misinformation as to the extent of the problem. In the case of these Chinese famines[citation needed], the urban population had protected legal rights for certain amounts of grain consumption. Local officials in the countryside competed to over-report the levels of production that their communes had achieved in response to the new economic organisation and thus local peasants were left with a much reduced residue.


According to China Statistical Yearbook (1984), crop production decreased from 200 million tons (1958) to 143.5 million tons (1960). Due to lack of food and incentive to marry at that point in time, the population was about 658,590,000 in 1961, about 13,480,000 less than the population of 1959. Birth rate decreased from 2.922% (1958) to 2.086% (1960) and death rate increased from 1.198% (1958) to 2.543% (1960), while the average numbers for 1962–1965 are about 4% and 1%, respectively.

The officially reported death rates show much more dramatic increases in a number of provinces and counties. In Sichuan province, the most populous province in China, for example, the government reported 11 million deaths out of the average population of about 70 million during 1958–1961, one death in every seven people.[citation needed] In Huaibin county, Henan province, the government reported 102 thousand deaths out of a population of 378 thousand in 1960. On the national level, the official statistics imply about 15 million so-called "excess deaths" or "abnormal deaths", most of them resulting from starvation.[citation needed]

Yu Dehong, the secretary of a party official in Xinyang in 1959 and 1960, stated,

I went to one village and saw 100 corpses, then another village and another 100 corpses. No one paid attention to them. People said that dogs were eating the bodies. Not true, I said. The dogs had long ago been eaten by the people.[6]

It is widely believed that the government seriously under-reported death tolls: Lu Baoguo, a Xinhua reporter in Xinyang, told Yang Jisheng of why he never reported on his experience:

In the second half of 1959, I took a long-distance bus from Xinyang to Luoshan and Gushi. Out of the window, I saw one corpse after another in the ditches. On the bus, no one dared to mention the dead. In one county, Guangshan, one-third of the people had died. Although there were dead people everywhere, the local leaders enjoyed good meals and fine liquor. ... I had seen people who had told the truth being destroyed. Did I dare to write it?[6]

Some Western analysts, such as Patricia Buckley Ebrey, estimate that about 20-40 million people had died of starvation caused by bad government policy and natural disasters. J. Banister estimates this number is about 23 million. Li Chengrui, a former minister of the National Bureau of Statistics of China, estimated 22 million (1998). His estimation was based on Ansley J. Coale and Jiang Zhenghua's estimation of 17 million. Cao Shuji estimated 32.5 million. The aforementioned Yang Jisheng (2008) estimated the death toll at 36 million.[2] Hong Kong based historian Frank Dikötter (2010) estimates that, at minimum, 45 million people died from starvation, overwork and state violence during the Great Leap, claiming his findings to be based on access to recently opened local and provincial party archives.[4] However, his approach to the documents, as well has his claim to be the first author to use them, have been questioned by other scholars.[12] Dikötter's study also stresses that state violence exacerbated the death toll. Dikötter claims that least 2.5 million of the victims were beaten or tortured to death.[13] He provides a graphic example of what happened to a family after one member was caught stealing some food:

Liu Desheng, guilty of poaching a sweet potato, was covered in urine . . . He, his wife, and his son were also forced into a heap of excrement. Then tongs were used to prise his mouth open after he refused to swallow excrement. He died three weeks later.[14]


There are widespread oral reports, and some official documentation, of cannibalism being practiced in various forms, as a result of the famine.[15][16][17] Due to the scale of the famine, the resulting cannibalism has been described as "on a scale unprecedented in the history of the 20th century".[15][16]

Further perspectives

The discussion includes other scholars who caution against taking a one-sided approach or see the issue in a wider context.

Wim F Wertheim, emeritus professor from the University of Amsterdam, has questioned the validity of the large number of famine deaths put forward by various researchers. In the article "Wild Swans and Mao's Agrarian Strategy", Wertheim says

Often it is argued that at the censuses of the 1960s "between 17 and 29 millions of Chinese" appeared to be missing, in comparison with the official census figures from the 1950s. But these calculations are lacking any semblance of is hard to believe that suddenly, within a rather short period (1953-1960), the total population of China had risen from 450 [million] to 600 million.[10]

Mobo Gao, Professor of Chinese Studies and director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Adelaide,[18] suggested that the Great Leap Forward did in fact have its own logic and rationality, and that its terrible effects came not from malign intent on the part of the Chinese leadership at the time, but instead relate to the structural nature of its rule, and the vastness of China as a country. Gao says "..the terrible lesson learnt is that China is so huge and when it is uniformly ruled, follies or wrong policies will have grave implications of tremendous magnitude".[19]

Others suggest that Mao's responsibility for disastrous famine has to be evaluated in light of the overall demographic situation. Lucien Bianco points out that Maoist China dramatically improved life expectancy and that many of the babies who died would, under the old regime, never have been born, and that there was a crisis in agricultural production population in any case. [20] Gao Mobo argues that the Maoist revolution gave an estimated net positive value of 35 billion extra years of life to the Chinese people.[21]

Former Chinese dissident and political prisoner, Minqi Li, a Professor of Economics at the University of Utah, has produced data showing that even the peak death rates during the Great Leap Forward were in fact quite typical in pre-Communist China. Li (2008) argues that based on the average death rate over the three years of the Great Leap Forward, there were several million fewer lives lost during this period than would have been the case under normal mortality conditions before 1949.[22]

Nobel Prize winner economist Amartya Sen puts this famine in a global context. His book Development as Freedom argues that lack of democracy is the major culprit: "Indeed, no substantial famine has ever occurred in a democratic country—no matter how poor." He adds that it is "hard to imagine that anything like this could have happened in a country that goes to the polls regularly and that has an independent press. During that terrible calamity the government faced no pressure from newspapers, which were controlled, and none from opposition parties, which were absent."[23]

See also

  • Great Leap Forward (1958–1961)
  • Four Pests Campaign
  • Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62


  1. ^ Peng Xizhe (彭希哲), "Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China's Provinces," Population and Development Review 13, no. 4 (1987), 639-70.
    For a summary of other estimates, please refer to Necrometrics [1]
  2. ^ a b "A hunger for the truth: A new book, banned on the mainland, is becoming the definitive account of the Great Famine.",, 7 July 2008
  3. ^ Akbar, Arifa (2010-09-17). "Mao's Great Leap Forward 'killed 45 million in four years'". The Independent (London). Retrieved 2010-09-20. 
  4. ^ a b Dikötter, Frank. Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62. Walker & Company, 2010. p. 333. ISBN 0802777686
  5. ^ China: A Century of Revolution. Narr. Will Lyman. Ed. Howard Sharp. and Sue Williams Dir. (WinStar Home Entertainment, 1997); Demeny, Paul and Geoffrey McNicoll, Eds. "Famine in China". Encyclopedia of Population. vol. 1 (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003) p. 388-390
  6. ^ a b c Translation from "A hunger for the truth: A new book, banned on the mainland, is becoming the definitive account of the Great Famine.",, 7 July 2008 of content from Yang Jisheng, 墓碑 --中國六十年代大饑荒紀實 (Mu Bei - - Zhong Guo Liu Shi Nian Dai Da Ji Huang Ji Shi), Hong Kong: Cosmos Books (Tian Di Tu Shu), 2008, ISBN 9789882119093(Chinese)
  7. ^ The People's Republic of China 1949-76, second edition, Michael Lynch (London: Hodder Education, 2008), p. 57
  8. ^ 100 top disasters of the 20th century
  9. ^
  10. ^ a b Asia times online
  11. ^ "WHAT CAUSED THE GREAT CHINESE FAMINE?". 2000-01-01. Retrieved 2009-05-14. 
  12. ^ Dillon, Michael. "Collective Responsibility“ "The Times Literary Supplement" January 7 (2011), p. 13.
  13. ^ Dikötter, Frank. Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62. Walker & Company, 2010. p. 298. ISBN 0802777686
  14. ^ Issac Stone Fish. Greeting Misery With Violence. Newsweek. September 26, 2010.
  15. ^ a b Bernstein, Richard (February 5, 1997). "Horror of a Hidden Chinese Famine". New York Times. 
  16. ^ a b Becker, Jasper (1997). Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. Free Press. pp. 352. ISBN 978-0-68483457-3, title is a reference to Hungry ghosts in Chinese religion 
  17. ^ Dikötter, Frank (2010). "36. Cannibalism". Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–1962. pp. 320–323. ISBN 978-0-80277768-3. 
  18. ^
  19. ^ Gao. Mobo (2007). Gao Village: Rural life in modern China. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3792-9. 
  20. ^ Bianco, "Review, Frank Dikötter, Mao’s Great Famine, China Perspectives (2011) [2]
  21. ^ Gao. Mobo (2008). The Battle for China's Past. Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0-7453-2780-8. 
  22. ^ Li. Minqi (2008). The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy. Monthly Review Press. ISBN 978-1-58367-182-5. 
  23. ^ Amartya Kumar Sen (1999). Development as freedom. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780192893307. Retrieved 14 April 2011. 


  • Ashton, Basil, Kenneth Hill, Alan Piazza, Robin Zeitz, "Famine in China, 1958-61", Population and Development Review, Vol. 10, No. 4. (Dec., 1984), pp. 613–645.
  • Banister, J. "Analysis of recent data on the population of China", Population and Development, Vol.10, No.2, 1984.
  • Becker, Jasper (1998). Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine. Holt Paperbacks. ISBN 0805056688
  • Cao Shuji, The deaths of China's population and its contributing factors during 1959-1961. China's Population Science (Jan.2005) (In Chinese)
  • China Statistical Yearbook (1984), edited by State Statistical Bureau. China Statistical Publishing House, 1984.Page 83,141,190
  • China Statistical Yearbook (1991), edited by State Statistical Bureau. China Statistical Publishing House, 1991.
  • China Population Statistical Yearbook (1985), edited by State Statistical Bureau. China Statistical Bureau Publishing House, 1985.
  • Coale, Ansley J., Rapid population change in China, 1952–1982, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 1984.
  • Li Chengrui(李成瑞): Population Change Caused by The Great Leap Movement, Demographic Study, No.1, 1998 pp. 97–111
  • Dikötter, Frank. Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62. Walker & Company, 2010. ISBN 0802777686
  • Jiang Zhenghua(蒋正华),Method and Result of China Population Dynamic Estimation, Academic Report of Xi'an University, 1986(3). pp46,84
  • Peng Xizhe, "Demographic Consequences of the Great Leap Forward in China's Provinces", Population and Development Review, Vol. 13, No.4. (Dec., 1987), pp. 639–670
  • Thaxton. Ralph A. Jr (2008). Catastrophe and Contention in Rural China: Mao's Great Leap Forward Famine and the Origins of Righteous Resistance in Da Fo Village. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521722306
  • Yang, Dali. Calamity and Reform in China: State, Rural Society and Institutional Change since the Great Leap Famine. Stanford University Press, 1996.
  • Yang Jisheng. Tombstone (Mu Bei - Zhong Guo Liu Shi Nian Dai Da Ji Huang Ji Shi). Cosmos Books (Tian Di Tu Shu), Hong Kong 2008.
  • Official Chinese statistics, shown as a graph.
  • Death rates in several Asian nations, 1960 to 1994.
  • Gao. Mobo (2007). Gao Village: Rural life in modern China. University of Hawaii Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3792-9
  • Gao. Mobo (2008). The Battle for China's Past. Pluto Press. ISBN 978-0-7453-2780-8
  • Li. Minqi (2008). The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy. Monthly Review Press. ISBN 978-1-58367-182-5

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